German conglomerate Siemens is no stranger to additive manufacturing — which the company describes as "3D printing to the max." It even sells software and services targeted at manufacturers embedding these digital technologies into their design and production processes. So it makes sense that Siemens Energy, which specializes in turbines, generators and storage, would embrace this approach for its own products. The two are separate entities as of April 2020, but the history is there.
The latest illustration of that philosophy is the contract Siemens Energy disclosed in early May with Seurat Technologies, a fast-growing industrial climate tech startup founded in 2015 in Wilmington, Massachusetts.
The common perception is that 3D printing is great for prototyping or for creating components or things in low-volume batches — the practice is pretty common among aerospace and healthcare companies, to name just two sectors. As I reported last spring, Seurat is challenging that narrative by designing 3D metal printing technologies intended for high-volume production. The company claims its current systems already are 10 times faster than other 3D metal printing options, and it’s promising a 100X speed advantage by 2025.
Put another way, it can print things in a matter of hours rather than weeks or months.
Why so speedy? Seurat’s approach draws on the idea of pointillism — it was named in homage to the Impressionist painter with which that technique is typically associated. Its technology — born out of a manufacturing workaround used at a nuclear fusion energy project at Lawrence Livermore Labs (yes, really) — applies laser beams to the pattern being created. Think pixelization. That enables Seurat’s systems to stamp designs more quickly than traditional printers that apply things in layers. The pitch: Jobs can take hours rather than weeks or months.
The other thing Seurat is promising is price parity compared with the process by which these sorts of components are typically created — using casting and molding processes. It’s shooting for roughly $150 per kilogram by 2025, with a $25-per-kg goal set for 2030, according to the company’s marketing literature.
Seurat has so far raised $91.5 million from venture firms and corporate innovation funds. Which brings us back to Siemens Energy, also one of those investors, and also a big proponent of additive manufacturing. "Siemens Energy is always looking for innovative technologies that can transform the future while creating a more sustainable world," said Enrique Gonzales Zanetich, head of venture building for Siemens Energy, in a statement. "We’re excited about our future printing high-quality parts with fantastic economies of scale to deliver cost savings. We invested in Seurat Technologies and believe that strengthening our partnership could help to accelerate decarbonization in the industry at scale."
The part Seurat will produce for Siemens Energy is a turbine sealing segment made from a nickel-based alloy — it’s a component the company hadn’t previously considered as a candidate for 3D printing, Seurat co-founder and CEO James DeMuth told me. "If a customer is willing to pay us to qualify their parts, we will oblige."
Over the six-year length of the contract, Seurat will produce 59 tons of the sealing segments and related components. The big benefit trumpeted in the press release about the deal is the potential cost savings, but the approach also reduces the emissions associated with producing the part, because Seurat’s technology is powered with solar and wind electricity that the company sources locally, DeMuth said. The equation Seurat uses to talk about this is 1 metric ton of emissions reductions for every ton of components made. The approach also dramatically reduces the feedstock needed for production, DeMuth said, which cuts down on scrap.
Ampower, a consulting firm that focuses on additive manufacturing, estimates the current value of the industry at $3.2 billion. In a comment published as part of the Seurat press release, the firm’s managing partner, Maximilian Munsch, said: "For several years now, the energy industry has efficiently utilized metal 3D printing for the production of turbine components, reaching a high level of maturity. Metal 3D printing has become a crucial enabler technology for innovation to significantly reduce the CO2 footprint throughout the turbine’s lifetime. We expect the demand for such components to grow by 26 percent annually."
There’s some work to be done before Seurat will begin delivering the parts, starting with adding more systems at its production facility, which is already running at capacity and can’t accommodate any additional jobs. The agreement will see the companies first work on qualifying the parts produced using the Seurat process for qualities such as materials handling, tensile strength and resistance. That work will occur in early 2024, with production ramping by 2025, DeMuth said.
This particular deal may seem small in the scheme of things, but I believe it’s illustrative of the new mindset reshaping U.S. industrial policy — and another example of a company chipping away at its carbon footprint by doing more than carbon credits. Have more examples to share? Slip me a note at [email protected].
Editor's note: This story was updated May 10 to clarify the relationship between Siemens and Siemens Energy.